Gardner doesn’t have eye-popping numbers for Santa Cruz as he comes off the bench and averages 6.8 points and 2.9 assists a game. But the crowds that often pack Kaiser Permanente Arena in downtown Santa Cruz have taken notice of the flashy point guard.
However, the journey the urban legend and YouTube superstar has taken to get to this point has been anything but normal.
Back in 2008, Oakland was ranked fifth in the United States in crime rate. The city was riddled with rapes and robberies and had a reported 125 homicides.
Oakland was becoming more and more dangerous and Gardner’s family decided that it was time for him to move away. He ended up in Manteca, attending Manteca High School. During his sophomore and junior seasons, he provided the San Joaquin Valley memories that’ll last forever.
With slick ball-handling skills that you may be only able to see from players on the Harlem Globetrotters and the AND1 Tour, a deadly 3-point shot and a leaping ability comparable to Spud Webb, Gardner averaged 21.6 points, five assists and three steals in leading Manteca to two consecutive Valley Oak League championships.
He really took off at Westwind Preparatory Academy in Phoenix, where he became a YouTube sensation, averaging 24 points, four rebounds, four assists and 3.5 steals a game while leading the team to a state championship.
“I was just somewhat different than what people were used to, and that right there made the situation unique,” Gardner said.
Two summers ago during the San Francisco Pro-Am League, Gardner displayed his full arsenal of skills, playing with a swagger and street mentality straight from 55th avenue in East Oakland. He dazzled his way around college and NBA talent handily and Gardner started single-handedly packed Kezar Pavilion when he had a game scheduled.
“I remember the first game I went to, [Kezar) was empty,” Gardner said. “It was all but 50-60 people in there. But by the next time I played, it was 2,000 people inside the gym. A few weeks into playing in S.F., I saw more and more people coming to the game. That’s what I like to call a movement.”
Going 1-on-1 with Sacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas, to trash-talking and clapping in the face of former Warriors swingman Dorrell Wright, Gardner stole the show, blistering the league by averaging 40 points a game and winning the MVP award.
Gardner, who scored 51 points in a game that summer, describes his game as being “all ghetto.”
“It’s straight from the streets, bottling up everything that I seen growing up, whether it was good or bad,” Gardner said. “You get me mugging, you get me smiling, you get me happy and you just might get a genuine person really trying to flourish in an athletic way.”
But after then, he disappeared.
He was released from his scholarship his freshman year at Providence, then bolted away from Midland College, a tiny junior college in Midland, Texas.
He loved his situation at Providence, and felt like he held his own against now All-Big East guard Bryce Cotton in practice. In Midland, it was an unstable situation for Gardner, and he decided that it would be idiotic to sit out another season.
He decided to move to Los Angeles, train and declare for the NBA Draft, which seemed preposterous. Now? He’s one call away from living his dream, which is to play hoops on the highest level.
“In a humbling way, I never questioned my basketball ability, nor the people around me,” Gardner said. “And that’s why we made this jump. I wouldn’t advise other people to do what I did. I’m just a different breed.”